The Correct Use of Secularism

By Marie Liégeois

In The Correct Use of Secularism (Aden publishers), thirteen authors, brought together by the University of Liège’s
Marc Jacquemain and Nadine Rosa-Rosso, express their fears at seeing develop in Belgium a sharp rise in ‘secularist’ fever, a little similar to that found in France, which seems above all to reflect the stereotypes concerning Islam that are to be seen more and more in the ‘common sense’ of our societies. Against this possible abuse within secularism the authors have tried, starting from different philosophical positions, to offer, in converging ways, a more positive version of secularism, seen as a guarantee of the neutrality of each person’s philosophical and religious choices. ‘Réflexions’ has read this work attentively in an attempt to highlight its most striking features and thus contribute to opening up a debate on a theme which is a very contemporary one in society.

COVER LaïcitéSpring 2007. A petition is circulating, one amongst several, in favour of banning the wearing of headscarves by young Muslim girls in schools. Called ‘The place of philosophical beliefs in schools’, this petition receives neither the consent of Marc Jacquemain, a sociology professor at the ULg, nor that of Nadine Rosa-Rosso, a professor of French, both of whom define themselves as secular. Each of them writes a text explaining their refusal. Put into contact with each other, Marc Jacquemain and Nadine Rosa-Rosso, wanting to ‘make heard a positive and democratic voice’ within secularism, decide to assemble diverse contributions to this theme within a single volume. A number of authors rub shoulders within it, with beliefs which are secular or on the edges of diverse philosophies or religions. They are united by a guiding principle here: the need to react, to reaffirm the primacy of political secularism over philosophical secularism, and to denounce the obsessions of a ‘self-righteous secularism’.

The unfortunate double meaning of ‘secularism’

Historically, the term ‘secularism’ designates two different concepts. This is an unfortunate polysemy which needs to be explained, in as far as it constitutes the core of this work.

On the one hand secularism is the expression of the desire for total independence within a society between a State’s political organisation and any particular religious or philosophical choice. A State is ‘secular’ in this first sense if it grants no privilege to a particular religion or philosophical choice and it makes provision for the free co-existence of religions within society whilst respecting common law. But the word also designates a very different concept: belonging to a particular philosophical choice, characterised by the refusal of every reference to revealed truth, or to the existence of ‘supernatural’ beings (atheism, agnosticism). In the first instance the term ‘political secularism’ is generally used, whilst for the second the term ‘philosophical secularism’ is used.

However, the work’s two editors stress, the cohabitation of these two meanings is unfortunate and sometimes contradictory. One can thus be secular in a political sense but not in a philosophical one – certain Christians, Muslims and Jews, for example. Conversely one can be secular in a philosophical sense and not in a political one: that is the case of those who would like to see philosophical secularism dominate the public arena institutionally and become the State’s conceptual reference point. Moreover, in as much as it is possible for a citizen to be secular in both senses of the term, it is impossible to apply this situation to a State. Once as a State defines itself as being philosophically secular it in effect ceases to be secular on a political level. As Marc Jacquemain underlines, this confusion within terminology is dangerous because it gives the impression that, in the name of secularism, one could impose the absence of religion as a privileged position.

Poster debateThe fact remains that this misunderstanding nonetheless seems to have become anchored within a movement which is radicalising a fringe of secularism, which the authors observe in Belgium as much as in France. A ‘combative secularism’ which often coincides with an anti-religious proselytising directed against Islam. In the eyes of Marc Jacquemain, Nadine Rosa-Rosso and the other contributors this is a very wrong battle for secularism. Reaffirming the primacy of political secularism, in as far as it proclaims the neutrality of the State and constitutes a rampart against all forms of fundamentalism, the authors have thought it vital to react publically.

They have done so because, they estimate, behind this defective thinking several excesses are taking form: the justification of a ‘war’ carried out by a State against certain of its citizens, a proselytisation in favour of atheism, a moral pretext to justify discrimination against some citizens on the single criterion of religious belief. Moreover, they underline, this ‘combative secularism’ risks being used as a justification, in the international arena, for aggression, threats and wars, in particular against peoples and nations which resist foreign occupation or oppose in one way or another the hegemony of a great power. A risk moreover which takes on greater weight in a contemporary context in which warlike American unilateralism mixes with the desire to build a ‘fortress Europe’.

The book’s authors are thus united, around the question of headscarves in particular, in making heard another secularist voice, which pleads in favour of the basic values of political secularism: building a framework of thought for a more just and democratic society, allowing the recognition of cultural pluralism, building a fire-guard against moral certitudes, against simplistic generalisations, and fantasies in terms of the cultural components of the European edifice. The ‘ordinary racism’ condemned by the authors is already far too much of a feature in our society. ‘For us, as secularists, it would be catastrophic if, through a lack of caution and clear headedness, other secularists covered with a veneer of respectability latent forms of xenophobia that are only asking for an opportunity to develop’, concludes Marc Jacquemain


Ten secular arguments against the legal ban on the veil

The Muslim wearing of the veil has given rise to much unrest, since fifteen years ago in France and more recently and moderately in Belgium. We thus regularly see petitions cropping up which demand - ‘in the name of secularism’, deplores Marc Jacquemain – the banning of the veil in schools, even in universities and, quite bluntly, in ‘the public arena’ as a whole. Amongst these arguments, some, notes the author, spring from ‘a thinly veiled racism’. These are arguments, he continues, which are not endorsed by the secular movement as such but which nonetheless are proposed in the name of secularism. All this can leave one feeling perplexed.

Situating himself in an open conception of public space and within a shared democratic framework, and categorically renouncing certain abuses to which the label ‘secularism’ has been attached, Marc Jacquemain posts up ten secular arguments against the legal banning of the veil.

1. No privileging of atheism or agnosticism

Secularism, as a claim for the strict indifference of public authorities towards all religious or philosophical convictions, cannot give a privileged place to atheism and agnosticism in as much as they constitute beliefs. Atheism, moreover, assumes all the characteristics of a religion the moment it becomes institutionalised. Political secularism’s sole demand should be that the State makes provision for the cohabitation of different beliefs in respecting the democratic framework decided jointly.

2. Secularism is an injunction made against the public powers, not against the citizens

The principle of secularism protects citizens against possible bias on the part of public authorities. What is on the other hand indefensible is applying this duty of restraint to the users of public services, that is to say the citizens themselves. The logic of neutrality then finds itself completely inversed and no longer serves to protect people but instead reduces them to silence. Applied to citizens, the principle of neutrality becomes an injunction, and goes against the freedom of expression. Political secularism is in no way the banning of expression but embodies an obligation to debate, in which it is accepted that diverse religious and philosophical beliefs enter ‘into competition’ with one and another. Without that the threat of State censorship hangs over our heads.

3. ‘Communitariansim’ is not necessarily where it is believed to be

What should we understand by the term ‘communitarianism’? The desire of ethnic, religious or cultural groups to see their specific practices accepted? The fact that certain cultural groups tend to constitute privileged contact and self-help networks? According to the sociologist, that in no way threatens democratic societies. What would however be inacceptable would be groups claiming to opt out of common law in order to ‘manage themselves’ in terms of specific juridical norms. According to him, if young people of North African origin are in no way different from young French or Belgian people, they suffer from the same discriminations. And, if Islamic ‘communitariansim’ is thus largely a fantasised Islam, Western ‘communitarianism’, white and Eurocentric, is very apparent here, where we demand that Muslims submit not only to our laws but also to our customs and to ‘live like us’.

4. The veil is a plurivocal reality

Fille foulardAccording to the author, as soon as fantastical constructions come into play, the reality of everyday situations disappears behind the ‘veil’ of generalisations. In Muslim countries, a woman’s veil certainly has a structural link with the overall situation of domination that is hers. But, even in the world of Islam, this interpretation is too univocal as the veil cannot be summed up as a sign of submission. Even more so in Europe the veil cannot be reduced in a unanimous way to an instrument of oppression, as ‘combative secularism’ would too easily have it. It can sometimes play a role in positive identity construction for Muslim women, in as far as it is set up against daily oppression and discrimination.

5. Refusing the ban does not mean defending the veil

The French debate on the question has been simplified to ‘for or against the veil’ instead of ‘for or against the ban’. However the difference is very important. Because, as a number of opinion polls show, if the majority of French public opinion is against the wearing of the veil at school, an even greater majority is against veiled pupils being excluded. And it is indeed this evaded question that matters: it is not necessary to know if one defends the veil ‘in itself’, as a cultural practice, but if one is ready to accept some form of ban. Interdictions, in our societies, lean on shared rules in ‘living together’. But how does the simple wearing of a veil transgress these regulations? In order to be able to pronounce in favour of a banning measure on the veil it has been necessary to construct a ‘fantasised complex’ in which the veil has been linked to intolerable practices such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, even rape. But why not take issue with these practices themselves instead of with a symbolic sign with multiple meanings?

6. One cannot liberate the oppressed against their will

Constraints can sometimes turn out to be factors in liberation from domination. But that in no way authorises the State to decide ‘in their place’ what the oppressed experience as a form of domination. There we fall into paternalism or, worse, instrumentalisation. However, according to enquiries into the wearing of the veil, it appears that the pupils do not complain about this sign in itself but rather the ethnic and cultural stigmatisation they are the victims of. In this context, designating the way they dress as being culturally inacceptable can only reinforce this feeling of stigmatisation. And the idea that in order to ‘liberate’ these young Muslim it is necessary to ‘unveil’ them against their will reveals much about the self-importance of a certain way of thinking with universal pretensions.

7. Banning the veil is an extra form of violence carried out against Muslim females

If certain people have the self-appointed task of ‘liberating’ young Muslim girls from patriarchal obligation, how is this ban to be applied? What sanctions should be chosen? And what to do with those girls who, out of fear of their parents, out of defiance, by refusing this constraint, or because of indignation, refuse to give up this ‘distinctive religious sign’? Will they be excluded from school? A choice which, as the French experience shows, brings about enormous material and symbolic violence against those that certain people would have they are emancipating.

8. The question of the veil is inscribed in a ‘clash of civilisations’ vision of the world

The rank and file veil ‘prohibitionists’ have built up a fantasised construction around Islam: an imaginary world which mixes in higgledy-piggledy fashion the attacks of September 11th, the Talibans, forced marriage, stoning or the threats of Al Qaeda and terrorism. And the sociologist has to ask: at the end of the day, who is spreading terror in the ‘real world’? Given the number of civilians killed, the towns destroyed, the uprooted families, given the damage caused by the war in Iraq, how can it have been forgotten to such an extent that today it is Muslims the world over who are being massacred and dominated by Westerners? How is it possible not to recognise the natural legitimacy of identity affirmation in this context? How can it be forgotten that the West bears a considerable amount of responsibility for the emergence of a political Islam? And how, as a consequence, can one avoid the fact that the question of the veil – much as that of the infamous caricatures of Mohammed – is largely defined in this particular context, and not in some ethereal and abstract debate about secularism? For Marc Jacquemain, this fantasy around an Islamic terrorism masks the fact that today terror is well and truly conducted in the world by an alliance around the United States.

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9. Prohibitionism is inscribed in a context of a arise in racism

If the demand that the wearing of the veil does not in itself constitute a racist position, it is all the same not possible to avoid establishing a link between this debate and the existing context of racism today. To illustrate that, here the logic of ‘different rules, different standards’ imposes itself: the problem of religious signs only becomes apparent when Muslim signs are involved. Have we seen such outcries when the cross or the skull-cap is the issue? Anti Muslim racism is sometimes openly proclaimed by people who define themselves as ‘left wing’ or ‘secularists’. Even more dangerous is ordinary racism, shared and spread by those who believe in good faith that they are fighting it. Islam has become, in some way, the (acceptable) outlet for ordinary racism, rendering acceptable thoughts and emotions that are suppressed when it is a question of other groups and communities.

10. The torch of tolerance handed on to the Churches

The final argument, concedes Marc Jacquemain, turns out to be in favour of philosophical secularism itself. Today, and as several ‘veil affairs’ in Belgium have demonstrated, ‘secularism’ is often perceived by young people as the very example of the dogmatic rigidity that secularism however denounces in a consistent way. In their eyes, religions embody better the example of tolerance, even whilst the number of believers constantly diminishes. The last straw? The ‘historical’ religions in Western Europe, explains the author, sometimes understand better than secularism the price to be paid to remain in touch with living beliefs: being open to pluralism. Passing on to the ideological competitor the torch that one believes one is guarding with the utmost energy: how ironic! Secularism, concludes the author, deserves better than that.

Towards another secularism: the power of democracy

Marc Jacquemain and Nadine Rosa-Rosso have wanted to give a say to atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Marxist citizens who all share the vision of a political and positive secularism. The thirteen authors gathered together here have personal beliefs which are very different in many ways and thus not all of them would recognise themselves in ‘philosophical secularism’. Nonetheless they all claim to be secularists in the primary sense and voice their concerns at possible excesses at the heart of secularism. The book brings together collaborations with different tones, from lived experience to pleas for the defence.

‘The worst misinterpretation,’ note Marc Jacquemain and Nadine Rosa-Rosso, ‘would of course be to believe that the book has been written against secular commitment. We are convinced that many secularists, militants or otherwise, would straightaway share the majority of the arguments here. As for the others, those who have taken the path of what they call ‘combative secularism’, we can only invite them to debate with us. Because if there is one point that we hope all of us are in agreement with, it is that there is no secularism without debate.’

Amongst the co-signatories of The Correct Use of Secularism, Jean Bricmont (professor of theoretical physics at the Catholic University of Leuven) rubs shoulders with Paul Delmotte (Professor of international politics at the Higher Education Institute for Social Communication and lecturer at the Free University of Brussels), Henri Goldman ‘co-director of the journal Politique), Dan Van Raemdonck (Honorary President of the League of Human Rights in francophone Belgium), Paul Löwenthal (economist, Emeritus Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven) and Radouane Bouhlal (President of the Movement against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia).

Jeunes irakiensLet us also cite Malika Hamidi, a doctoral student at the Paris Higher Education School of Social Sciences, and who is the European co-ordinator of the European Muslim Network, a think-tank on the question of Islam in Europe. In the book she shows that the question of the veil has crystallised many of the fantasised fears that are situated over a wider context.

Nadine Rosa-Rosso, the co-manager of this publication, is for her part a professor of French in the social promotion teaching network. She has directed the publication of two issues of the journal ‘Contradictions Rassembler les résistances’ and is the author of the article ‘And if the headscarf can liberate?’, which gave birth to this collection. Within this work she situates herself in the school context with a paper called ‘Let’s not be scared of our pupils, let’s love them!’, which makes the case for the neutrality of teaching, animating debates and placing confidence in young people.

At the book’s conclusion, Alec de Vries, a philosophy graduate and a specialist in the links between politics, science and democracy, and Christophe Page, a Free University of Brussels philosophy graduate, as well as a Catholic University of Leuven teacher training graduate and a professor of religion in the secondary school system, set out the cornerstones of ‘another secularism’ based neither on ignorance nor on the absence of confrontation. A peace achieved through encounters and via democracy. The idea is to build the possibility of a positive cohabitation between adversaries, without succumbing to the opposite emotion, the negative frustration of having given up ground.

The diplomatic path offered by Christophe Page and Alec de Vries starts by rejecting the idea of compromise, for which is substituted the idea of a ‘compositional’ peace, in which it is necessary to demonstrate creativity in forming, necessarily together, a cohabitation space to which each one will add what they can provide to the whole, instead of removing that which is not to their liking. A bit like a botanist who looks to create new hybrid species on the basis of existing strains. Idealistic? The authors talk of a ‘wager’, ‘the bet that the chances of succeeding exist and that in nourishing them one can give them the strength to come to fruition and build a peace which is richer and more interesting for the actors than that, practically guaranteed of its success, which would be obtained by subtracting that which causes disagreement’.

The secularism offered here calls for creativity, in order to allow the unexpected to spring up. A step which, the authors insist, contrasts with the logic of war which only flattens out all the variations and rallies each one to search for identity purification. It is thus not a question of looking for the tiniest common denominator of tolerance, nor for an overall synthesis of all the religions, but instead of wagering on the diversity of religious ideas from the perspective of the enrichment of public space.


(1) Du bon usage de la laïcité, directed by Marc Jacquemain and Nadine Rosa-Rosso, 240 p., Aden Publishers.